Menthol and fruit flavors make cigarettes more enticing and more addictive. Now the Food and Drug Administration is taking the first step toward possibly limiting their use in tobacco products.
The FDA took its first steps last week to possibly lower the amount of nicotine in cigarettes. On Tuesday, it started asking for more input on how menthol and other flavorings make cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products more addictive and dangerous and, if so, what it should do about that.
“FDA may consider restrictions on the sale and distribution of flavored tobacco products,” the agency said in a notice for a proposed new rule.
The agency's commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, said the main goal is to protect children.
“For years we have recognized that flavors in these products appeal to kids and promote youth initiation. The data backs this up, and as a result, Congress prohibited the use of most characterizing flavors in cigarettes,” Gottlieb said in a statement.
“The thought of any child starting down a path of a lifelong addiction to tobacco, which could ultimately lead to their death, is unacceptable. We need to take every effort to prevent kids from getting hooked on nicotine.”
FDA’s action Tuesday is the first step in a lengthy and often complicated process of changing federal rules.
The agency is asking for input on the effects of flavors in cigarettes, little cigars, snus and other chewed tobacco products and e-cigarettes.
Last week, the FDA asked for similar input as it considers requiring tobacco companies to reduce how much nicotine goes into cigarettes.
The FDA does not have the authority to ban tobacco products, but since it was given some powers by Congress in 2009, it has moved gradually to impose some limits on tobacco sales and marketing.
Tobacco is the single biggest cause of both heart disease and cancer and kills close to half a million people a year in the U.S. alone.
Tobacco companies have been forced to admit and advertise the fact that they colluded to make cigarettes as addictive as possible and concealed their devastating health effects.
Anti-smoking groups have campaigned for years against menthol and other flavorings in cigarettes.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids questioned whether the FDA really needs any more input.
"The FDA must act promptly to stop the flood of flavored e-cigarettes and cigars that have entered the market in recent years and threaten to addict a new generation of kids," it said.
"The FDA also has more than enough evidence to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes."
"Banning menthol cigarettes should be the agency’s No. 1 priority along with eliminating flavors in other combustible products such as little cigars," said Robin Koval, CEO of the Truth Initiative, an anti-tobacco advocacy group.
"While a limited availability of flavors in reduced harm products such as e-cigarettes may play a role in encouraging smokers to quit, there is no role for products with youth-appealing names such as unicorn vomit, fruit loops or peanut butter and jelly.”
Much research backs up the argument that sweet and fruity flavors mask the harsh taste of tobacco, and attract younger new tobacco users.
"Each day in the United States, more than 2,300 youth under the age of 18 years smoke their first cigarette, and nearly 1,900 youth smoke their first cigar," Gottlieb said.
"Flavors may disguise the taste of tobacco. But flavored cigarettes and little cigars are every bit as addictive as any other tobacco products, have the same harmful health effects and may even make it harder to quit."
There has been a vociferous outpouring from vapers afraid that regulation will ruin the market for e-cigarettes. Gottlieb said he was mindful of stories he has heard from vapers who say e-cigarettes helped them kick the smoking habit.
"We need to take every effort to prevent kids from getting hooked on nicotine.”
"And they’ve also told me it was the flavors that helped them make that transition off combustible cigarettes," he said. "Now I know anecdotes aren’t the same as data."
But he also noted that fruity flavors, especially, attract youngsters to e-cigarettes, which almost always deliver extremely addictive nicotine.
"The troubling reality is that e-cigarettes are the most commonly used tobacco product among middle and high school students, and flavors are identified as one of the top three reasons for use. Given these findings, we need to be wary of the role flavors play in attracting youth to initiate on any tobacco product that could lead to regular use — something we clearly want to avoid," Gottlieb said.
Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, said the FDA's move was "long overdue".
"We encourage the FDA to quickly move beyond information gathering and develop a strong flavoring product standard," Brown said. "There is already clear evidence that flavored tobacco products, including menthol, harm the public health."